Our Delayed Departure From Afghanistan

Andrew Sullivan —  May 28 2014 @ 1:40pm

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Obama is leaving 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after combat operations end later this year. Crowley summarizes the rationale for the decision:

Americans are much more able to conduct counterterrorism operations than the Afghan security forces. Perhaps just as important, the residual U.S. troops will be right across the border from Pakistan’s notorious tribal areas, where the most dangerous al-Qaeda-affiliated operatives are still based. Since the U.S. has no military presence in Pakistan, the ability to continue drone missions from Afghanistan will be enormously valuable.

A continued U.S. presence will also have symbolic and diplomatic value, as the former U.S. ambassador to Kabul, Ryan Crocker, told TIME in February. At a moment when there was talk of a residual force numbering in the very low thousands—or even none at all, given that Afghan President Hamid Karzai refused to sign a post-2014 military agreement with the U.S. (his successor is expected to do so)—Crocker said a robust American force was a valuable way of “signaling to friends and foes alike that we’re in this for the long run” in a region that America has abandoned before.

Though the plan is to get all troops out by the end of 2016, Crowley notes that it’s possible “America’s troop presence could be extended by a future agreement in the final days of Obama’s term, especially if the Afghan government feels vulnerable and Washington sees signs of a local al-Qaeda resurgence.” Michael O’Hanlon feels that the residual force will exit too quickly:

Almost as soon as that enduring force of 9,800 is postured properly in the country, it will have to plan for its own termination and begin to dismantle its new capabilities. The president’s plan to cut that number of U.S. troops in half in the course of 2015 means that most of these regional bases will be closed almost as soon as they get into their new groove. And the decision to then go to zero American troops, beyond the confines of Kabul proper, by the end of Obama’s presidency will take away drones and commandos that could be used against al Qaeda in Afghanistan or Pakistan, as well as whatever residual other help Afghan forces may still need then.

He would prefer those bases stay open longer, perhaps indefinitely. Larison rejects staying in Afghanistan forever:

There will always be excuses to keep U.S. forces in the country even longer, and there will be a dedicated group of politicians and pundits that will never accept that it is time for U.S. forces to leave. For these people, any deadline is too soon, because most of them don’t really think that the U.S. should withdraw in the first place. If there is anything to object to in the president’s decision, it is that he offered a pointless sop to his hawkish critics. He has chosen to keep a residual force in Afghanistan beyond the end of this year for no real purpose except to be able to say that there will briefly be a few thousand troops staying behind for a little while longer.

Max Fisher thinks “the administration is tacitly confirming what everybody already knew: the war against the Taliban is not one that the US believes it can win, so we’re going to stop trying”:

This is not necessarily welcome news for Afghans. One of the main issues in this year’s Afghan presidential election was whether or not the country should sign the Bilateral Security Agreement, which allows the US to keep troops in the country. Hamid Karzai opposed the BSA; the two candidates who came out on top in the election both vocally supported it. Many Afghans I’ve met, whatever their politics, are outspoken about wanting the Americans to stay, not because they are blind to the invasion force’s mistakes or missteps but because they see it as the security bulwark against something much worse: the Taliban.

So while this may be good news for Americans, who are understandably sick and tired of a war that has cost them so much and yielded so little, do not mistake it as therefore good news for Afghans.

Waldman fears that, even with fewer soldiers in the country, we will continue to suffer casualties:

Afghanistan is already the longest war in American history. Come October, Americans will have been fighting and dying there for 13 years. What’s more, we don’t know what will happen if there’s a bloody struggle for power as we begin drawing down. Are the Taliban or some other faction going to target American personnel, on the theory that if they raise the cost of our presence, it will make us more likely to leave completely, thereby making it easier to overthrow the government? It’s always possible. Perhaps we’ll look back and call the end of this year the end of the war, but with thousands of troops remaining there for another two years, it might still look like a war

And Dalia Sussman finds that public opinion is generally in line with Obama’s decision:

In an ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted in December, the public favored, by 55 to 41 percent, keeping some troops in Afghanistan for training and anti-insurgency operations, rather than removing all forces from Afghanistan in the year ahead. That’s not to say that Americans think the war has been worthwhile. In the same poll, 66 percent said that considering its costs to the United States versus its benefits, it has not been worth fighting; 50 percent said they feel that way strongly.

(Photo: Mine resistant armored vehicles and other machinery waiting to be transported out of Afghanistan are seen in the background with a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III cargo plane at Bagram Airfield in Parwan on May 27, 2014. By Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)